Some Lesser Known Lessons from Academia

My thoughts on leaving academia follow from a pretty simple insight: taking advice on whether you should attend graduate school from a professor is a little like taking advice on whether you should become an actor from, like, The Rock, who incredibly was the top grossing actor last year.

The main problem isn’t necessarily that you can’t finish. I know very few people who left graduate school because they weren’t smart enough to finish — it happens, but it’s rare. More often people leave because they just decide getting a PhD isn’t for them. The truth is, it’s very difficult to understand what working in academia is like until you try it, and lots of people decide it’s not a good fit.

This, then, is why you should be wary of the advice you receive from your professors about graduate school: you’re getting a sample of advice from a group of people who all decided that academia was a good fit for them. This is what’s called a “selection problem,” which arises when the sample of data you have is generated by the process you want to try to understand. There’s nothing ill-intentioned about it, but the fact of the matter is your professors aren’t a random sample of the general population, or of people who applied to, started, or even finished graduate school. They’re professors, and so they’re probably more likely than the average person to enjoy being a professor.

A few caveats to this list. First, my experience in graduate school and academia more broadly was, truthfully, about as smooth as it gets. I got into a very good program; I finished on time; I published; I won a dissertation award; I got a fantastic postdoc. Some of that was personal — I worked really hard! — but a lot of it was structural — I’m a straight white dude with a wife who graciously bankrolled my intellectual dilettantism. People took me seriously at every turn, and I didn’t really give up that much to spend eight years reading and writing. In any case, this list shouldn’t be read as a litany of complaints, but it’s also worth pointing out that for most people my experience represents about as easy a path as you’ll find.

Second, there are lots of aspects of academia that aren’t good for anyone. It’s not good for anyone that the number of academic jobs is extremely low and, depending on your field, shrinking. There aren’t great data on either, but there’s impressionistic evidence that both depression rates and alcoholism are higher in academia than in the general population, although yes, of course, it is possible that both relationships are spurious.

But because there’s more attention paid to these “public bads,” they aren’t the topic of this post. Instead I want to focus on the aspects of academia that are selectively bad: they’re bad for some people, but not for others. And because people who are in academia are disproportionately likely to not be bothered by them, I suspect they get short shrift in advising discussions.

1. You like working on long-term projects.

With few exceptions — some honors programs that require multi-semester research projects or select research assistant positions — the most time an undergraduate has spent on a project is a few months.

With that in mind, here’s the timeline from my forthcoming article: my co-author and I began discussing the idea behind the paper in mid-2012. We drafted the paper, which took six months or so, and began presenting it at conferences in early 2013; we first submitted it to a journal later that year. It was rejected at the first three journals we sent it to. The time taken for reviews varies by journal, but hearing back before six weeks is unheard of; more often you will not hear for several months. The fourth journal invited us to revise and resubmit the article, in summer 2015. It was accepted there in October 2015, although it won’t actually be published until…I actually have no idea when it will be published, but as of spring 2017, five years later, I’m still waiting.

From inception to acceptance, then, was about 40 months. This is maybe a bit longer than average (it was our first publication!), but I doubt it’s by much. Depending on where you submit your article, there’s a roughly 5-15% chance it will ultimately be accepted — it’s virtually unheard of for something to be accepted without any revisions at all — so the process takes a long time.

2. You are good at managing your time over very long time periods.

This is part and parcel of the point about long-term projects. If your deadline and completion date are years in the future, how do you start? One thing you’ll need to learn quickly is how to compartmentalize large projects into many, many smaller tasks.

And yet oftentimes there aren’t many discrete tasks to accomplish. Sometimes you might just need to think about something for a long time. I spent countless hours in graduate school literally staring at a wall, trying to compact a conceptual problem in my mind. It’s tough to know when you’re done, or when you can be done — I woke up plenty of times in the middle of the night to write things down.

3. You don’t need to feel like you’re succeeding.

There are some days where you’ll feel successful, but not many. Again, you may have completed 1-2% of a project, but often it’s tough to see where that piece fits into the larger whole.

The other part of this is that there are simply very few milestones. You pass your comprehensive exams, your candidacy defense, and your dissertation defense, so during graduate school — a five to six year process — you have three markers that tell you you’re doing well. Apart from these, the only real professional currency you can acquire is publications, and to put it simply, you don’t want to rely on the publication process to tell you if you’re doing well professionally. That’s not to say the work isn’t interesting or rewarding, because it often is.

One thing that professors told me again and again early in graduate school: you absolutely must condition yourself to fail. Constantly. For every small success I had in graduate school, I am certain I had at least a dozen failures: rejected articles, brutal conference reviews, discovery of a flaw in something I’d just spent days working on, etc. (In truth, were I to tally these up I’m certain the ratio would be higher, but just writing this it seems implausible, so I’ll leave it as is.) These iterative failures are, at a very deep level, the essence of creating new knowledge, and are therefore inseparable from the job. If you can’t imagine going to bed at the end of nearly every day with a nagging feeling that you could have done better, academia is not for you.

4. You don’t care where you live.

Here, briefly, is how the academic job market works. Suppose you’re writing your dissertation, and the fall of 2018 rolls around and it looks like you’ll be able to successfully defend in the spring of 2019. Because tenure-track academic jobs — I’ll get to non-tenure track jobs below — work on a year-long lead, you need to start applying now, so that you can defend your dissertation in spring 2019 and begin your new job the following fall.

Each academic position will have many, many applicants. Via friends who have served on committees, the number is routinely several hundred. The odds, then, of being offered an interview at any one place are very low (unconditionally, say less than 5%), and to reach a reasonably high probability of receiving an offer you will need to apply everywhere there is a job listing you might reasonably fill.

I have heard early career graduate students or undergraduates considering academia say things like “I wouldn’t mind starting out at a place like the University of Kansas,” or some other institution they perceive to be of similarly low prestige. Let me be clear: you probably won’t get a job at Kansas. Getting a job at Kansas would be fantastic and is therefore exceedingly difficult. For nearly all students outside of the very top graduate programs, a job at Kansas (or similar institution) is almost certainly your best-case scenario. If you have family ties that prevent you from living outside a certain area, or a partner with an inflexible job, you will be very unlikely to find an academic job.

5. You don’t mind moving frequently, or being very mobile in general.

Because finding a tenure track position is very difficult, new PhDs often move from graduate school to a series of short-term positions, either postdoctoral fellowships or, more frequently, visiting or adjunct professor positions. These positions differ from tenure track positions in that they do not offer the promise of long-term employment: generally one would only stay at one of these positions for one or two years. Many times they also do not offer benefits like health insurance. If you can publish enough during this time period, it is sometimes possible to move into a tenure-track position. However, publishing is doubly difficult in visiting and adjunct positions, because you will be teaching a large number of courses.

So while the ideal path leads from graduate school to a tenure track position, more likely is one leading from graduate school to one or more short term positions that will require you to move — often across the country or the world — each year.

A related point here is that academics’ lives are often hilariously peripatetic. I know multiple people who live hours away from their home institutions and commute in to work for 2-3 days each week. If you arrive to graduate school single, you may soon acquire what is known as the “two body problem,” the name given to the deeply unfortunate situation in which one academic is married to another. This either complicates the problem of finding a job dramatically, provides an opportunity for the aforementioned several hour commute, or sets you up for a permanent long-distance relationship.

Again, none of these things are bad. But tolerance for them varies from person to person, and so they are worth pointing out to someone before this person invests six years of their life into a relatively infungible degree.

On a personal note, the last two of these played the biggest role in pushing me out: I didn’t want to give up control over where I lived, and I didn’t want to move frequently. This meant I needed to apply very selectively to jobs, which in turn meant that I didn’t get one. If those sound like dimensions you’re unwilling to compromise on, understand that academia will almost certainly be six to eight years of training for a field you will not find employment in.

I am sure there’s more I’m missing, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind. I hope that this is a useful look behind the curtain for people considering academia. And I hope I haven’t been unfairly negative. There are plenty of things I loved about the academic life: my six years in graduate school were some of the best of my life. The research is, I think, genuinely interesting. The people are, contrary to what you might hear, mostly fantastic. But there are pros and cons, and I hope this has highlighted some of the lesser-known of the latter.

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